It’s a view that never seems to make me popular with anyone, but it is a view I hold nonetheless – I support the residency rule (both the specific rule in Milwaukee, and the general concept). Usually when I state this position I am asked: “Why don’t people have a right to choose where they live?”
Well, why don’t local governments have the right to set terms of employment? Are any local governments clamoring to get rid of the residency rule? Look at the recent actions of the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). They anticipated the need for more teachers next year and chose to soften the rule rather than eliminate it. To me, that sounds like local control, and I am fine with it.
First, it creates a natural middle-class for cities. I am an admitted urbanist that believes a strong urban core with a strong middle class is essential to a prosperous regional economy. This applies to cities large and small. Second, there is a real argument to be made that government workers will be more committed to the communities they serve if they are the same communities in which they live. At the very least, providers of city services will have more credibility with the people they serve if they too are city residents.
Finally, I look at Act 10. Love it or hate it, Act 10 empowered local municipalities by shifting power away from unions by eliminating all but the most cosmetic collective bargaining. It is inconsistent to support the power of local government to make decisions in regards to compensation and benefits, but not basic job qualifications.
I suppose residency rules are an example of where one free-market principal, the freedom of individuals to decide where to live, clashes with another, the freedom of employers to set job qualifications. I suspect most readers will disagree with me, but at its core, isn’t this debate pretty simple? If you don’t want to live in Milwaukee don’t work for the city or MPS.
First, having actual tracks in the ground will hopefully end the illogical bus v. train debate in Milwaukee. Urban transportation is about moving people from point A to point B, but for some reason the debate over urban transit in Milwaukee is all about modes of transportation rather than the concept of transportation. How often have you heard opponents of the streetcar argue that trains are outdated?
Incidentally, both buses and trains are descendants of the omnibus, which was essentially a horse drawn box-like container. The first omnibus used for mass-transit in America, in New York in 1829, did not operate on a fixed track. It wasn’t until 1832 that someone decided to put the omnibus on a track and call it a horse-railway. So arguably, a streetcar operated on a fixed rail is a more modern idea than a bus. But that is beside the point. What matters is that Milwaukee needs a modern transit system, and the construction of the streetcar will hopefully shift the debate to how Milwaukee can best use a diversity of modes of transportation (like most other large cities) to meet the needs of its citizens and visitors.
Second, if the potential route of the Milwaukee streetcar (check out the second graphic down here) is ever realized it would be hugely successful. Connecting natural destinations like downtown, the airport, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Marquette University, and Miller Park will ensure ridership in a way the original route does not. More important, in can turn Milwaukee from a car-city to a public transit city. That idea may seem abstract, but I do not think it coincidence that the cities most successful at attracting young people (and their entrepreneurial energy) are easy to navigate via predictable public transportation.
Which leads to my third point – having tracks in the ground creates route permanence. Nobody (that I know of at least) opens a business or buys a home because it is near a bus line. As we’ve seen in Milwaukee bus routes can and do change frequently. Route changes are much less likely when there are tracks in the ground, making it more likely that people will invest near lines.
Fourth, building the streetcar demonstrates that Milwaukee is willing to take risks and boldly invest in its future. And the streetcar is a risk, especially with its current route. But without taking this risk the city will never get the broader system streetcar advocates are smartly emphasizing. I admit part of my support for the streetcar is emotional Milwaukee boosterism; a major diverse city like Milwaukee ought to have a major diverse transportation system.
The shame about all these years (decades?) of debate over the streetcar is that it could have been so much more productive. Maybe if we were not mired in argument over the existence of fixed rail there would have been agreement on a better and/or broader route. But regardless, the streetcar still has huge upside, and I am hopeful the boldness and persistence of advocates will pay-off in the years to come.
Right now Milwaukee county parks compete for funding with transit, public works, social services, and healthcare and pension costs for current and retired employees. Pitting the parks budget versus committed legacy costs or highly visible departments like public works is not a fair fight. Deferring maintenance on a playing field will take some time to get noticed, stopping garbage pick-up or pension payments will cause immediate uproar and legal action.
Removing Milwaukee parks from county government would also set an important precedent for other local governments struggling to adequately fund essential services to residents. Imagine what school districts, for example, could do without the array of non-education expenses that too often eat into classroom expenditures. Imagine if cities and counties could focus only on providing services for residents rather than budgeting for promises made in decades past. Surely services would improve.
Public parks contribute to the quality of life of a community, thereby playing a vital role in keeping neighborhoods stable and prosperous. If the percentage of the county tax levy going to Milwaukee parks continues its downward slide Milwaukee’s quality of life will suffer. Creating an accountable independent park district whose sole function is running and funding a parks system is not radical, it’s logical.
Again, I think the value Milwaukee brings to Wisconsin as the state’s lone major urban area is obvious. Consider, a Wisconsin without Milwaukee would be a Wisconsin without:
A major public urban university;
Summerfest and the other ethnic festivals;
The Art Museum, Symphony Orchestra, Marcus Amphitheater and other top-line cultural attractions;
Port of Milwaukee;
Professional baseball and basketball;
A major urban daily newspaper;
The ethnic and racial diversity of a city that is 55% non-white; and
Johnson Controls, Manpower, Rockwell Automation, Northwestern Mutual, Harley-Davidson, and the many other corporate citizens big and small.
All of things on this list contribute to the quality-of-life in this state, and all exist because of a unique confluence of size, density, and diversity in southeast Wisconsin. The state has other great places, but none offer the urban amenities of Milwaukee.
Madison, for example, is a growing and intrinsically interesting place due to the presence of state government and a world-class research university. It however, cannot supplant Milwaukee.
Take the issue of diversity. Milwaukee is 55% non-white, Madison is 21% non-white. 15% of Madison residents are foreign language speakers compared to 19% in Milwaukee. Only 5.3% of Madison businesses are Black or Hispanic owned. In Milwaukee that number is 26.3%. Milwaukee also has a higher percentage of female owned businesses, and wider income distribution than Madison, especially at the high-end.
The type of diversity present in Milwaukee is essential for a thriving urban area. It is the extremes and contradictions of great cities that yield energy, creativity, and productivity. The rich and poor, foreign and native, and young and old are all universally attracted to the economic opportunities, social mobility, and amenities present in dense urban places like Milwaukee (Milwaukee has over twice as many residents per square mile as Madison or Green Bay).
None of this is a knock against Madison – it too is an irreplaceable asset to Wisconsin for an entirely different set of reasons. It is however, a reminder that despite Milwaukee’s problems it is far from a drag on the rest of the state. The city is already a dynamic place and has much potential that remains untapped. It is reassuring to see, via the Franklin poll, that the majority of Wisconsin residents recognize the importance of their largest city.
Governance reform is a seductive idea because it is usually presented as a silver bullet for addressing a policy problem. For example, if the elected school board does not provide students with an adequate education, let’s replace it with one that will.
If only it was that simple. The inconvenient fact is that a school board does not educate pupils, teachers do. A school board governance change alone will not turn Milwaukee schools around.
The same is true for other local governments. The actual delivery of services is performed by street level bureaucrats that go about their duties regardless of who happens to be in charge of the City or County.
But this does not mean governance is irrelevant. Governance, whether it is the setting of specific policies or merely the setting of an organizational culture, can be the difference between creating an environment where an organization can thrive, or one where mediocrity is the ceiling.
Discussions of governance reforms should begin with two questions:
1) Is there a structural flaw or barrier preventing street-level bureaucrats from performing their duties adequately?
2) Is there an alternative governance structure that removes the barrier without disenfranchising voters?
“It’s time we free our parks from Milwaukee County control so they don’t have to compete for funding with state mandated services, residents can be more closely involved in their success and we can finally start addressing the problems our parks face instead of kicking the can down the road until the next election.”
It certainly satisfies my first question. As to my second, Cody notes that a dedicated funding source (sales tax) was supported by Milwaukee County voters in a 2008 advisory referendum.
I think Cody may be on to something, as structured the Milwaukee County Parks System faces some serious barriers to success. Parks are a great example of an asset that can make-or-break the quality of life of a place. If a Parks Commission is an economical way to improve the City, it bears continued discussion.
Another weekend, another fight involving the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). The latest incident was a near-brawl that forced the early cancellation of a Rufus King – Riverside boys basketball game. Unfortunately, incidents like this reinforce the common outstate perception that Milwaukee is in a complete state of dysfunction.
I assure you, it is not.
Today, like every other day, thousands of Milwaukee residents are going about the daily minutiae of urban life without incident. While understandable that day-to-day life in Wisconsin’s biggest city does not generate headlines, it is an important point to remember when examining the very real problems facing Milwaukee.
School violence, persistently low-levels of K-12 achievement, black male unemployment, and co-sleeping deaths are all are symptoms of entrenched pockets of dysfunction that demand attention. These pockets of dysfunction, however, do not define Milwaukee or its citizenry.
The city’s cultural attractions, neighborhoods, universities, and corporate centers are as much a part of Milwaukee as its social problems; which is why the recent criticism of Tom Barrett’s support of the residency rule for City of Milwaukee employees is misguided. The general critique is that Barrett would rather trap people in the city than work to make Milwaukee a place where people want to live. I am not often defending Mayor Barrett, but this line of criticism ignores a basic truth: People actually do want to live in the city.
Last May, Alderman Willie Hines pointed out that the most recent recruitment for new Milwaukee firefighters and police officers generated 5,000 and 3,500 applicants respectively. All of the applicants knew about the residency rule and wanted the job anyways.
More philosophically, allowing organizations to set terms of employment is perfectly in line with free market principals. Employers have a right to set their terms and employees have a right to take, or not to take a job. As Barrett stated (I am paraphrasing), city employees not wanting to live in Milwaukee are free to leave the city, and their jobs.
No doubt Milwaukee needs work (A list of proposals in a 2004 WPRI report is a great place to start), but it is not on life-support. People of all stripes make their home in the cultural and economic center of the state not because they must, but because it is where they want to live.
Something tells me a grazing ground for seagulls is not what John Norquist had in mind when he tore down the Park East freeway. Yet, almost a decade after Milwaukee took the remarkable step of tearing down a highway much of the reclaimed downtown real estate remains undeveloped.
The latest company to reject the site was Kohl’s, which announced plans to stay in Menomonee Falls. Kohl’s gave several reasons for the decision, according to the Journal Sentinel:
However, a downtown headquarters and parking structure would cost more to build than a similar project at a suburban site. That’s mainly because urban developments are built on smaller parcels, requiring taller buildings and multi-deck parking structures.
Also, a downtown building would have faced higher property taxes than a Menomonee Falls building.
Finally, a move from Menomonee Falls to downtown would have been disruptive for many Kohl’s employees.
It is unfortunate for Milwaukee, landing a major employer in the heart of downtown would have been a real coup for the city. It’s notable that Mayor Barrett made quite the effort to land Kohl’s, including securing tax credits and making plans for $100+ million in TIF financing. It begs the question, was the company ever truly serious about moving downtown, or simply using the possibility as leverage for a new site in Menomonee Falls?
Whatever the answer to that question, the whole affair is a powerful reminder of the limits of regional cooperation. Groups like the Milwaukee – 7 (which John Byrnes tore into on Sunday) are designed to facilitate cooperative efforts in luring out-of-state businesses to the Milwaukee region. But as Kohl’s (and before that Manpower) illustrates, when it comes to moves within the region it is every municipality for itself.